In the north of France lies Lille, the capital of the Hauts-de-France region known for its Flemish roots. Located near the border with Belgium, Lille has transformed into a vibrant cultural center and university city offering visitors many art museums and a delightful old quarter with winding streets. Vieux Lille, the historic center, charms with its 17th-century homes made of brick and cobbled pedestrian streets. Lille and the surrounding area have many places to take walking and bicycling tours, shop, and enjoy bars, cafes, and numerous examples of fine cuisine.
This former Hospice Comtesse in the historic center is a beautiful collection of buildings from the 15th, 17th, and 18th centuries, including a hospital ward, a chapel, a garden, and courtyards. Founded in 1237 by the Countess Jeanne of Flanders, it was one of the many religious, humanitarian hospitals that sprang up in Flanders and Hainaut in the 12th and 13th centuries. The museum features tapestries, paintings, wood sculptures, and porcelain from the region.
Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse is closed on Tuesdays.
You can view the bourgeois house-turned-museum where France’s most famous president Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) was born in the old town. The few rooms give you an idea of life at the time and of the relatively humble origins of the country's great figure. The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday.
Another good place to learn is the Charles de Gaulle Memorial Museum and the private house he lived in for many years in the village of Colombey-les-deux Eglises in Champagne, about four hours by car from Lille. The museum (closed Tuesdays) takes you from pre-World War I to the 1960s when he was still a powerful figure. You can also visit his tomb—and those of many members of his family—in the small local churchyard.
At the Lille Tourist Office in the Palais Rihour, tourists can book a variety of excursions, including a Saturday guided walking tour of old Lille that covers the Main Square, the old stock exchange, the Chamber of Commerce, and more important sites. There are also remembrance tours through World War I battlefields, adventures on old Dutch bikes or scooters, and additional educational options.
Lille is a lively place, with great events all year in the city and surrounding areas.
- Paris-Roubaix Cycle Race: Roubaix, about a 40-minute drive from Lille, hosts a weekend of events each year in April related to the famous professional men's bicycle road race held along rough terrain and cobblestones.
- Braderie de Lille: This enormous flea market always takes place on the first weekend in September. The masses come to Lille for numerous stalls and enough moules-frites (mussels and fries) to keep everybody going for two days.
- Lille Christmas Market: One of the best Christmas markets in the north of France, this one features around 90 booths filling the streets from late November through late December, while Lille is decorated and sparkling with lights.
The Palais des Beaux Arts is France’s second largest museum after the Louvre in Paris. Housed in a grand neoclassical building of the late 19th century, the large impressive spaces offer a panorama of great European art, including works by masters such as Goya, Corot, Monet, and Picasso. There are also sculpture galleries with superb 19th-century pieces and huge detailed models by Vauban of Louis XIV’s fortified north France towns.
The museum, closed Tuesdays and certain holidays, holds nice temporary exhibitions and has a café.
In Roubaix, the suburb of Lille, you'll find the unique La Piscine, La Musée d’Art et d’Industrie (a museum of art and industry). It’s housed in a fabulous restored building with an indoor swimming pool constructed between 1927 and 1932. The museum's permanent collection started in 1835 with the collection of fabric samples from local textile factories; it also has interesting art, including sculptures, ceramics, paintings, and more.
This museum is not open on Mondays and various holidays.
Lille is something of a gastronomic destination, offering everything from fish restaurants to bustling brasseries and vegetarian-friendly taco joints. Restaurant Meert is a famed spot established in 1761 and is the site where Charles de Gaulle enjoyed waffles; the restaurant also serves salads, sandwiches, grilled sole with asparagus, and more. France is known for wine and cheese, and La Part des Anges hits the spot serving up both in a wine bar/restaurant.
The Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art (LaM) in Villeneuve d’Ascq on the outskirts of Lille, stands in rolling green parkland filled with impressive sculptures. The museum holds more than 7,000 pieces from the 20th and 21st centuries, including major works by artists like Picasso, Miro, and others. Exciting art and top temporary exhibitions make this a draw for visitors from Lille as well as those from the U.K., Belgium, and the Netherlands.
Note the museum is closed on Mondays and on some holidays.
In 2012, the famous Louvre Museum in Paris opened an extension in the former mining town of Lens, about 21 miles (34 kilometers) from Lille. The gleaming aluminum and glass buildings house a remarkable collection of art from the Louvre. Enjoy the Gallery of Time, with over 200 works of art from the Paris branch—based on a chronological journey from the fourth millennium B.C. until the mid-19th century.
There are permanent and temporary exhibitions, including two major international exhibitions each year, so if possible, allow half a day for your visit. The museum is not open on Tuesdays and on some holidays.
Lille's biggest park, Parc de la Citadelle, is surrounded by the Canal de la Deûle and is a beautiful tree-filled retreat from urban life; it makes a great place for a picnic or a walk. Visitors can check out everything from the "Queen of Citadels"—designed by French military engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban between 1667-1670—to a fitness area and a kids' playground and carousel.
Parc de la Citadelle houses a zoo with about 400 animals such as zebras, meerkats, rare birds, monkeys, and more. The zoo schedule varies depending on the season, so confirm online before you go.
If anyone's in the mood to shop, head to Westfield Euralille, where more than 16 million visitors a year enjoy over 100 shops, especially focused on fashion and beauty, but also covering everything from home decor to sports.
When hunger strikes, shoppers will conveniently find more than 20 restaurants, coffee and frozen yogurt shops, and beyond.
For a vibrant taste of local Lille life—which may include hearing the sounds of an accordion as you stroll around—check out the Halles de Wazemmes covered market, one of France's biggest. Enjoy a chance to pick up not only food and international products but flowers, household products, and additional items at this market held on Tuesdays through Saturdays. It's a fun stop, as the nearby streets are filled with cafés, local shops, and bars.